I passed on BRUNO (just add virtual umlauts wherever you wish) for the theatrical run last summer and, after watching the DVD, I’m so glad I did. “Cringe” comedy was around long before Ricky Gervais newly popularized it on THE OFFICE in England: Allen Funt’s CANDID CAMERA in the Fifties was the first example I noticed as a kid. The American OFFICE (with the assistance of Gervais and his writing/producing partner, Stephen Merchant) has kept it up and, in many ways, is superior to its beloved Brit counterpart, because now we have a real sitcom: that is, after five seasons, we can almost predict how the various office denizens might react to a new stimulus, thus it’s up to the writers to surprise us. But each episode features at least one of those awkward pauses that made the BBC series so essential: we can’t believe what we’ve just heard, and the Voice of Reason (Martin Freeman in the original, John Krasinski in the U.S.) gives the camera a forlorn look: I heard it too…welcome to my world.
The audience is also in on the joke with Sacha Baron Cohen. His specialty, besides a chameleonlike ability to utterly alter his appearance, is rock-solid devotion to his character no matter what idiocy issues from his mouth; Harvey Korman and Tim Conway could not have made him break. He’s one of the greatest talents at improv that I’ve ever seen. It was all new on his wonderful DA ALI G SHOW, in which he played (1) a privileged English kid who affects the persona of a Third World rapper (Ali G), (2) a clueless TV reporter from Kazakhstan (Borat), and (3) a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista (Bruno). In character, Baron Cohen interacts with real people – some of them celebrities – in order to test their appetite for appearing on TV (1), push the boundaries of courtesy toward foreign customs (2), and unearth homophobia (3). In short bursts, all three characters were quite amusing: an entire episode only lasted about thirty minutes. And it was fun to see how much foolishness a Newt Gingrich or Buzz Aldrin could stand before deciding it just wasn’t worth it (some of Ali’s guests never reached that point). DA ALI G SHOW was such a sensation in England that it became prohibitively difficult to find more unwitting patsies, so HBO brought it to the U.S., where the pickings were again fat.
Now, all three characters have been expanded to feature length. ALI G INDAHOUSE (of Parliament) was much too British to make any noise in America and was barely released here. BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN, on the other hand, was a surprise hit in 2006 – it didn’t hurt that it was essentially an American travelogue – and it got Baron Cohen a major deal for the third feature, the one that just appeared, BRUNO. Fans of DA ALI G SHOW are no doubt flabbergasted that the filmmakers were able to stretch the latter two characters to feature length, and in BRUNO, they damn near weren’t; even with a star-studded “music video” at the end, it barely clocks in at 80 minutes. Even so, the three films reveal disturbing undertones in the three characters that are harder to read in five-minute increments.
Ali G is the simplest, because we infer a very recognizable backstory. Alistair Graham actually lives in Staines, a middle-class London suburb. “Ali G” represents his fantasy life. Not only does he appropriate what he imagines to be West Indies-laden language (Bob Marley, in his mind), but he peppers his speech with American slang as well. It’s hard to tell whether the character is as dumb as he sounds, because presumably his lessons came from the schools, not the streets. (Come closer, I have a secret to tell you: Sacha Baron Cohen is actually…tee hee…a graduate of prep school and Cambridge!) But Ali’s besotted with junk food and ganja, and his girlfriend (“me Julie”) can only be described as long-suffering: misogyny is part of the package. I’ve read that on a typical Ali G interview, the bling-laden Baron Cohen at first appears to be a crew member, adjusting lights and all, then plops down in a chair next to the guest and engages him in friendly conversation while “waiting for the host.” But the tape’s already rolling. Because Ali G’s witlessness is actually funny in and of itself, the cringe factor is dialed way back. The game is to determine, how long can he keep this up? For Ali G’s movie, the spotlight was entirely on the character, in hindsight a mistake since buffoonish interviews were actually a big part of his popularity. Perhaps realizing this, the Ali G team decided to fix things with its next feature.
At first glance, Borat Sagdiyev comes across as just as dumb as Ali G, but it’s not so. He’s simply a stranger in a strange land. You imagine that by Kazakh standards – for that’s the running joke – he’s probably a pretty good reporter. But despite his “undeveloped country” crudity, and one particularly nasty bit of bigotry, those around Borat cannot escape his essential sweetness. He loves America, he’s thrilled to be here, so if you’re a patriot, you have something important in common. Unlike Ali G, who projects the rapper’s disdain for authority and tries to sound as much like a “playa” as possible, Borat yearns to join your society. And so there are chinks in the armor of our ironic detachment from his victims: many of them are simply trying to be hospitable toward this mound of bizarre customs. Baron Cohen reportedly refused to wash his worn gray suit during the entire shoot, so that whenever Borat leaned over to kiss the next uncomfortable redneck on both cheeks, a stench would precede him, and just maybe cause an involuntary grimace or flinch. Is that loading the dice? Doggone right it is.
On one of his TV appearances, Borat leads the gang at an Arizona country-music bar in his own composition, “In My Country There Is Problem,” with its now-famous chorus, “Throw the Jew down the well!” For our sweet Borat also happens to be a fierce, stalwart anti-Semite. “Borat” used the same rolling joke when he visited Jon Stewart’s desk and tried to find his horns. But back in Arizona, did Borat really stumble upon a nest of like-minded cowboys, or was it only just a group of beer-drinking shitkickers who were trying to be nice by singing along? Some charge that the crowd had been warned it would be a comedy song, and at least one Jew in the audience was singing herself. Only the crew knows how much of the reaction to Baron Cohen is genuine and how much is staged. (Come closer, I have a secret to tell you: Sacha Baron Cohen is actually…tee hee…an observant Jew!) There certainly is rampant bigotry in America, and some of it is shown in BORAT. But my ire is reserved for those self-important “teachers” and “motivators” who try to lure sad, gullible people into an undeserved sense of superiority over something. Those are the true creeps, not the folks who whoop it up with the funny-looking guy in the cowboy hat.
And now we have Bruno, the nightmare of every homophobe, not to mention every gay person who wants to be taken seriously. He swishes, he shakes ass, he renders his wrists limp. He explores every possible manifestation of the gay-basher’s imagined stereotype. This is by definition the most repulsive and aggressive of Baron Cohen’s three characters, but one of the actor’s formidable arsenal of weapons is sheer courage rivaling Andy Kaufman’s. He goes on a Dallas TV talk show with an overwhelmingly black audience and shows them his new adopted black baby from Nigeria, wearing a T-shirt that reads GAYBY. He tells them he traded an iPod for little “O.J.,” and makes them angrier with every passing second. (Hmmm: how much of that was staged?) As a modeling agent, Bruno interviews the parents of infants and asks them if they’d permit their babies to wear a beard made of bees, appear in a crucifixion scene, and more. Everyone answers yes, and we think it’s a funny comment on stage mothers, but then we see the resulting photos later! (Ginned up or not, they’re still eyeball-widening.) Bruno goes to boot camp, a hunting expedition where he tries to sneak naked into a fellow hunter’s tent, a martial arts teacher who helps him learn how to defend himself against homosexuals, a swinger’s night where a dominatrix repeatedly whips him with a belt to get a hetero reaction, and finally an extreme sports cage-match event where Baron Cohen and his co-star wind up rolling around on the mat together and scandalizing the redneck crowd so mercilessly that some of them actually start crying on camera. Still, the only real blood that’s spilled comes when Bruno visits a “recovered homosexual” who claims to be able to cure him, and a minister who feels the same way, and they need nobody’s help to look ridiculous. (Oh yeah, come closer, I have a secret to tell you: Sacha Baron Cohen is actually…tee hee…not gay at all! In fact, he’s engaged to, and a papa with, red-hottie Isla Fisher!)
Now the ironic detachment gets perilously close to a cliff. Being played by a Jew might give Borat a little license that others might not have. But Bruno’s played by a straight man. Where’s the line between satire and genuine homophobia, either felt or induced? What gives him the right? When all’s said and done, it’s just an exercise, and it doesn’t really matter, because BRUNO is one and only one joke, and the most important thing is that after a while it simply isn’t funny any more. Are there homophobes in America (and by the way, even our own country’s supply of patsies must be shrinking, because the lion’s share of BRUNO takes place in the Deep South)? Of course there are, but I don’t want to spend another hour and a half watching a man point to a barrel full of fish, produce a revolver, and fire – again and again and again.
Baron Cohen is also notorious for declining interviews out of character when promoting a movie. If you’re Letterman or Leno, you book Borat, not Sacha Baron Cohen. I’ve only heard one non-character radio interview in all the time I’ve been following him: an NPR piece when ALI G came to the U.S. But this summer, notably, he bounded on the Letterman stage as himself, and told very entertaining stories about the making of the movie. Outside of the traditional clip, Bruno himself was nowhere to be found. Maybe somebody decided that ten minutes with Bruno was quite enough. After going the full 80, I agree. Let’s retire all three characters, and ask this very talented man for something new.